The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a rule that will allow wind project developers and other industries to obtain permits to kill or disturb bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years. Until now, such permits were limited to five years.
While eagle-take permits are not specific to any one industry, wind developers pushed for the extension, arguing that five-year permits were not practicable since project life cycles often exceed two decades. Long-term permits will be subject to five-year reviews to ensure populations are being conserved and will require monitoring by independent contractors, whose data will be publicly available, the service said.
"We hope the final rule provides a workable permitting framework that gives the private sector necessary clarity, while further reducing the already minimal impact the wind industry has, and maintaining healthy eagle populations for generations to come," Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, said in a news release.
The American Bird Conservancy, which sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over an earlier version of the rule, said it saw "some positive elements" in the new rule, including the requirement for independent monitoring, as well as "significant weaknesses and omissions."
"If FWS is going to allow any wind energy facilities to be constructed in the migratory route of Eastern Golden Eagles and issues take permits for these eagles, that's potentially a huge problem for the vulnerable Eastern population," Michael Hutchins, director of the ABC's Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign, said in a news release.
In 2014, the ABC complained that federal regulators had violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by refusing to order an environmental impact statement or assessment before extending the maximum permit length to 30 years.
Hutchins said the new rule could still violate the National Environmental Policy Act. "We understand — and this is a good thing — that no permits are to be given for the take of Golden Eagles unless the permittee implements compensatory mitigation," he said. "But it's also troubling because we don't know much about the effectiveness of mitigation yet."
FWS Director Dan Ashe said the government is "using the best available science to make eagle management decisions that promote eagle conservation."
"As long as eagles and people share the landscape, human activities will inevitably result in the unintentional disturbance, injury and even loss of eagles. But we can now reduce threats and mitigate those risks far more effectively, sustaining healthy bald and golden eagle populations for the foreseeable future," Ashe wrote in a Dec. 14 blog on The Huffington Post.
Noting that the service cannot require industries to implement mitigation measures, Ashe said the "key to gaining industry cooperation is a permitting system that drives implementation of protection measures for eagles and in return, authorizes limited remaining (unavoidable) eagle loss."